The St. Louis Rams are 2-2 and off to their best start since Bradford’s rookie season where they just missed out on winning the division title and hosting a playoff game. More importantly the Rams have been competitive into the fourth quarter of each loss this season, both of which occurred away from the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams offense hasn’t produced many highlight reel moments this season, but it is yet another new system depending heavily on contributions from young players and a patchwork offensive line so early in the season progress is just as important as production. Above all this Rams team has been resilient in the face of adversity which is a trait we haven’t seen from them in quite a while. Jeff Fisher has made his mark on this football team and Rams fans should be excited about the rest of the season as well as the future of the franchise. Lets take a look at some of the reasons from each phase that has made the Rams more competitive than their 2011 counterparts.
Defense. The Rams defense may not get the praise that other teams in the division are getting right now, but they are played an incredible bend don’t break type of football in September. The St. Louis Rams currently have the 14th ranked defense according to NFL.com’s statistical ranking for total defense. So far this season the injuries at defensive tackle have had a big impact on the defenses effectiveness. The Rams haven’t been very good against the run, especially against Seattle allowing Lynch and Turbin to combine for 6.3 yards per carry. The Rams also haven’t been able to generate much pass rush up the middle allowing teams to double team Quinn and Long and minimize their impact during obvious passing situations. The Rams secondary has more than made up for the deficiencies in the pass rush. The Rams are currently second in the league in interceptions behind the Bears who were the beneficiaries of Romo’s 5 interception debacle on Monday Night Football. They are also tied for first in the league with Baltimore for fewest TD passes against, and are number one for quarterback rating against. Think about that for a minute, first in the NFL in passer rating allowed after having faced Stafford, RGIII, Cutler and Wilson. The Rams have managed to accomplish this even with Craig Dahl as a liability in coverage at the safety position. The other aspect of the bend don’t break defense is making plays when it matters most and so far the Rams have excelled on 3rd down defense allowing only a 31% conversion rate which is good for 6th in the NFL. 3rd down conversion percentage can be a very telling statistic which is often overlooked. Against the Seahawks the Rams went 5-13 on offense while holding the Seahawks to 2-9 on third down, the ability of the Rams to win the 3rd down battle is a huge factor in their increased competitiveness.
Offense. If I had told you before the season started that Danny Amendola would be number two in the NFL in receptions through four games AND that his yards per catch would be in the double digits (11.3) you would have fallen out of your chair laughing. Amendola’s impact on this offense cannot be understated, especially now that his role has expanded beyond scrappy slot receiver. The Rams definitely still need their other receivers to continue to develop to give Bradford other options (see the game against the Chicago Bears), but Amendola’s return to the lineup has a huge reason this offense is converting 38 percent of their 3rd down attempts (17th in the NFL) despite only averaging 3.7 yards per carry on the ground. Givens and Quick each managed to make a big play against the Seahawks, if they can continue to make progress the Rams offense will grow with them. The Rams offensive line managed to have all 5 players take every single snap together against the Seahawks which is at least a step in the right direction, even if a couple of them will be replaced when Saffold and Wells return from injury. Steven Jackson has had a slow start to the season in part because of the injuries along the offensive line as well as his own groin injury, the good news is that the Rams appear to have gotten a steal in 7th rounder Daryl Richardson. So far the Rams have gotten just enough out of the running game to keep defenses committed to stopping it.
Special Teams. The Rams surprised many pundits this offseason by saying goodbye to their veteran place kicker and punter. While Josh Brown’s best days came against the St. Louis Rams he was still an above average veteran kicker. Donnie Jones was actually the bigger surprise in my opinion, he had been performing at near pro bowl level for the Rams. When the Rams drafter Greg Zeurlein in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL draft many of those same pundits were beside themselves in disbelief, after all only Al Davis drafts punters and kickers right? So far the two rookies have been instrumental in the Rams early season success. Johnny Hekker the undrafted free agent punter is averaging 46.6 yards per punt and threw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal against Seattle. On a team with a limited offense the ability to play the field position game is very important and Hekker has definitely impacted the Rams in that respect. As for that kicker that the Rams were crazy to draft? He is only 12-12 with 3 of those coming from 50+ yards including a Rams record 60 yarder. The Rams are only averaging 19.8 points per game with Greg the Leg contributing 9 of those on field goals alone, is it impossible to have a placekicker win rookie of the year?
The St. Louis Rams have made great progress since last season, already matching their win total only 4 weeks into the season. The single biggest factor in the Rams newfound competitiveness? Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff. For years Rams fans had to suffer through watching their team get out coached week in and week out, well against the Seahawks the Rams coaching advantage was as big of a factor in the win as anything else. Jeff Fisher flat out coached Pete Carroll. On paper the Seahawks are probably the better team, and any team that averages 5.3 yards per carry in a game should come out on top against an offense as limited as the Rams. The difference was the game management, especially at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. The Rams have also adapted Fisher’s mentality of playing physical football and not getting too up or down on any given play. The 2011 Rams would have probably folded after the Seahawks went 80 yards on the opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, or after the opening play fumble return for a TD against the Redskins for that matter. The 2012 Rams may only win a few more games, but there isn’t a game on the schedule that they don’t have a chance to win.